How to Spend One Day in Ho Chi Minh City
I’ll admit, Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t initially on our radar when we began planning our travels to Vietnam, but in the quest for seeking out the best flight deals and balancing them with layovers and flight times, our research always brought us back to the city. Hanoi had been our go-to for flying into and out for our adventures in the north (December 2018), but now that we were tackling the central and southern Vietnam, the country’s capital just didn’t make sense.
The rumblings throughout our circle of traveling friends had been luke warm (at best), but in the desire to save both time and money we went ahead and penciled-in Ho Chi Minh City (little did we know that we would be flying into/out of this airport a grand total of 3x this trip, 2x just for a simple layover). The third (and last) leg of our trip was to the small island of Con Dao just east of mainland where Vasco holds basically a monopoly when it comes to flights. Thus, when they want to cancel them…they do. Many times for no apparent reason at all. So since we were ending our trip on a bit of an unpredictable note, we decided to play it safe and have a day in Ho Chi Minh City before flying back to Tokyo to make sure we didn’t miss the flight back home. *We would encourage you to do the same if you choose to have Con Dao as a destination during your Vietnam adventure as the unpredictability of Vasco Airlines on this route is EPIC.*
So just like that we went from avoiding the city to spending a full 24 hours in Ho Chi Minh and it suddenly becoming the very (very) last leg of our trip. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Ho Chi Minh was our favorite, as it wasn’t (by a long shot). However, our tribe doesn’t sit on the sidelines and just hang by the pool very well. Consequently, we set out to get a feel for the city’s major sights, sounds, and (of course) tastes. So, if you’re like us and you find yourself in the bustling city for a short period of time, take advantage! Below is an itinerary that will fill 24 hours, won’t break the bank, and (we think anyway) both kids and adults will enjoy!
Airport Transfer Tips:
- Download the app “Grab” before taking off on your Vietnam adventure (it’s SE Asia’s version of Uber). Why? It’s cheaper than jumping in a cab and you won’t have to worry about “the meter being broken” or a taxi driver taking the long way to get to you to your destination just to drive up the fare. Knowing the cost upfront is just plain helpful on so many levels.
- You won’t be able to snag a ride from airport “arrivals” via Grab car to your hotel, so you have a few options to get to the hotel:
- Hail a taxi (the easiest yet most expensive option). If you choose this option make sure the meter works!
- Try heading up to the “departures” and requesting a Grab car from there (as Grab can drop-off easily at the airport)
- Walk ~0.2km outside the airport and try plugging in a different pick-up location (ex: Highlands Coffee).
- Plan on spending ~78,000 VND to get to a hotel in District 1 (via Grab car).
1. Breakfast At Eden Star Saigon
For our time in HCMC we chose to balance budget and luxury and thus honed in on this mid-range hotel. We had splurged a wee bit in Con Dao the previous leg, so wanted something comfortable and in District 1, the main sightseeing area, without a hefty price tag. Luckily for us that’s not too terribly hard to find in Ho Chi Minh. Welcome drinks and cookies are served upon checking in and on certain days of the week their is a pianist in the lobby. Overall strong first impression.
Breakfast here was solid as well (and included in our room rate through Booking.com) and the staff very attentive. You can plan on a hot buffet, fruit, yogurt, pastries, coffees, teas, juices, and the Vietnamese staple – Pho. Pretty much anyone will find something to their liking. The view isn’t amazing from the morning breakfast area, but it does the trick and is a nice way to start the day. High chairs are available too for the itty bitty ones in your party – just ask!
Oh, and one more thing before you start exploring…
Make sure to cross the streets exercising lots of caution! Like many other places in Vietnam, cross walks don’t really exist and most sidewalks are just a nice place for motorbikes to park, so you’ll find yourself walking on the street a good bit and hoping for the best when you cross traffic. Just imagine yourself in a game of “Frogger” and you’ll kinda start to understand what we are talking about! It’s definitely a place where a baby carrier comes in handy.
Crossing the Street (safely) Tips:
- Try to cross with others (safety in numbers!).
- Walk across at the same steady pace, believe it or not traffic will find its way around you (the first few times you do this I’ll admit, it’s a bit scary and more or less a nail-biting experience!).
- Always walk, never run, as it makes it harder for cars/scooters to move around you!
2. Independence Palace (aka Reunification Palace)
Post-breakfast, head on over to the middle of the city to explore Reunification Palace. During the 1970s this building was incredibly important as it served as both the President of South Vietnam’s home, place of work, and facilitated the planning for the South’s wartime efforts with the Americans against the North. However, April 30, 1975, the building took on a different meaning when a Northern Vietnamese tank came crashing through its gates. The South had fallen, and Saigon would never be the same. As you move through the various halls you’ll see where meetings, conferences and transformational discussions took place. History buffs will throughly enjoy this stop! Audio guides are available for rent in various foreign languages (English included), but all of the rooms also have brief explanations as well.
- Hours: Daily, 0800 – 1100 & 1300 – 1600
- Admission: 40,000 VND/Adult, 10,000 VND/Child (not sure at what age children require tickets, our two kiddos – 5yo and 2yo were free!). Foreign language audio guide: 80,000 VND.
Independence Palace Tip: Get there early or late in the day as the big tour buses arrive usually late-morning.
3. Saigon Opera House
Another relic of the French rule of Saigon, the Opera House which has been certified as a national relic is an important cultural hub of the city. Even for those (like us) who don’t have time to enjoy a show, the facade itself is quite the attraction. It was built in 1898 and was designed to set high off the street with two sets of doors to help block out noise from the busy streets outside.
- Hours: Box Office Open Daily, 0930 – 1630
- Admission: No entrance fee, just buy a ticket for a show.
4. Notre Dame Cathedral & Our Lady of Peace
(open the website above with Google Chrome for translation of Vietnamese)
A Catholic Cathedral in primarily Buddhist Vietnam sticks out pretty easily by itself, but the obviously French architecture of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon is particularly a sight to behold. Built during the time of French colonization, it was even given Basilica status by the Vatican in 1962. If you time it right you can attend mass, but even if you only have time to admire the facade it is certainly a worthwhile stop.
- Hours: Daily, Monday – Saturday, 0800 – 1100 and 1400 – 1600. Weekday Mass: 0530 and 1730. Sunday Mass: 0530, 0645, 0930 (in English), 1600, 1730, and 1830.
- Admission: Free
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral Tip: The Cathedral is presently undergoing large-scale renovations that are anticipated to continue until the end of 2019. As such, visitors are not allowed inside to visit until its completion.
5. Saigon Central Post Office
Literally next door to the Notre Dame Cathedral stands the Saigon Central Post Office making it a bit of a no-brainer of a next stop. Containing elements of Gothic, Renaissance, as well as French colonial design this bright yellow building is eye-catching. Although some give a gracious nod to Gustave Eiffel, the man behind the design of the Effiel Tower, for the architecture, it should be noted that the actual mastermind was Alfred Foulhoux. With a huge portrait of “Uncle Ho” gracing the inner promenade, it is unmistakably Vietnamese.
- Hours: Daily, 0700 – 1900
- Admission: Free
Saigon Central Post Office Tip: If your visit is anything like ours – HCMC is HOT. Like hot, hot. Although the heat has never stopped us from exploring when we travel, it does usually mean that we take breaks more often to just pause and cool-off. There is a super cute restaurant right next door to the Central Post Office that is very inviting (+ shaded), however the marked prices on the menu seemed a bit high for what we were looking for. If we have learned one thing living in Japan it’s that you can usually count on convenience stores to deliver in Asia and although not as good as those in Japan, Circle K came through for us multiple occasions during our time in Ho Chi Minh City.
Fortunately for us, there was one located across the street from the Post Office! Slide on in and grab rainbow slushies for the kiddos (12,000 VND/each) and a Vietnamese craft brew (74,000 VND) for yourself! Then park it right underneath a shady tree and enjoy. Much less expensive than the restaurant and still did the trick! Just be ready for to be asked if you would like your shoes shined…often.
Although this museum is not completely kid-friendly as some areas contain extremely graphic images, a visit to HCMC would definitely be incomplete without visiting. With that being stated, we would encourage you to take the kids, but to be mindful, scoping out the exhibits prior to bringing your wee ones into each room. If you find some of the rooms to be too graphic or your kids are beginning to climb the walls (like ours), there is a nice playroom on the third floor that is completely free and filled with stuffed animals, blocks, and all sorts of fun goodies. Oh, and did we mention that it is air-conditioned?! This room was clutch for us allowing Dom and me to take turns. One parent taking time to appreciate the exhibits while the other does kid duty – it worked out quite well.
- Hours: Daily, 0730 – 1200 and 1330 – 1700
- Admission: 40,000 VND/Adult, 20,000 VND/Children (6 – 15yo), Children under 6 years old are free
7. The Lunch Lady
Despite our initial unfavorable impression of Ho Chi Minh City when compared to the rest of Vietnam, it’s impossible not to gather some appreciation for the city after watching the late Anthony Bourdain’s episode of “No Reservations” which features Vietnam. His love for the cuisine is infectious, and his description of the absolutely incredible food “The Lunch Lady of Ho Chi Minh” aka Nguyen Thi Thanh serves up daily is enough to make your mouth water. The menu here rotates constantly with a different soup taking the spotlight each day of the week. We were surprised to find a complete lack of crowds when we strolled up. Just a few locals and one other foreign couple sitting in plastic chairs lunching. Perhaps we were lucky or perhaps it really is a place primarily for locals. In any regard, food was placed in front of us (perhaps a bit too much) literally as soon as we sat down and it was every bit as delicious as we expected.
- Hours: 1100 – 1500
- Soup: 40,000 VND/bowl
- Fresh Spring Rolls: 80,000 VND/plate
- Fried Spring Rolls: 60,000 VND/plate
- Fried Bread with Shrimp on top: 60,000 VND/plate
*Not sure if the prices above and serving sizes are based on how many people are at your table eating or if every plate contains the same number of spring rolls no matter how many are in your party. We *think* the price may vary based on the number of items on the plate, but with the language barrier it was impossible to tell. For reference, we are a family of four (2 adults, 2 kids).
The Lunch Lady Tip: There were a lot of “extras” that are served without ordering (ex: fresh spring rolls, fried spring rolls, and fried bread with shrimp). Although we appreciated these items just showing up at the table without being ordered (after all, we were there to try #allthefood), don’t mistake them to be complimentary – they aren’t and we aren’t sure if you could even opt out of purchasing them…maybe? We didn’t try and just indulged. But, this custom puts foreign tourists in a tough spot, especially if you are traveling on a shoe-string budget. Bottom line: Nothing in Ho Chi Minh City is free. NOTHING. So if something lands on your table (ex: napkins, water, food of any kind, etc.) expect to be charged regardless of if you ordered it. Overall, it cost our family 240,000 VND (~$10.50 USD) to eat and although we were expecting the final bill to be less based on what we had read we feel the price was fair after all; our bellies were happy!
8. Pool Time
After the seriousness of the War Remnants Museum and filling our bellies at The Lunch Lady’s street stall, we were all ready to cool off a bit so we bee-lined back to the hotel for a swim. The pool at the Eden Star Saigon Hotel is located on the 12th floor and incredibly easy to access. We were a bit disappointed that you didn’t get a great view while swimming as much of the glass surrounding the balcony contains advertisements, but the cool water felt fantastic in the late afternoon/evening (Did we mention its scorching hot in April?). Additionally, our kids are highly motivated by pool time, so this is one of the many ways we get them to continue moving throughout the day.
Moreover, there is a BOGO happy hour everyday on drinks, so it’s a great chance for the adults to relax as well! Besides the obstructed view in some areas the only other criticism we would have would be the number of smokers in the pool area. Obviously this is hit or miss depending on when you go, but we would LOVE a non-smoking policy!
Pool Tip: Happy hour is 1500 – 1700 with BOGO on drinks (catch is that they have to be the exact same drink). Original price is 150,000 VND/drink, so two for 150,000 VND is a pretty good deal!
9. Bến Thành Market
Bến Thành Market is the most famous market in the city, and it certainly is crowded! However, you definitely haven’t really visited Southeast Asia unless you’ve experienced a market. Bến Thành is (for the most part) enclosed, so the air flow isn’t the best, but the people watching more than makes up for it. This market primarily focuses on dry goods and souvenirs and although nothing in particular grabbed our attention we do think a walk-through is worth the time.
- Hours: Daily, 0600 – 1800 (inner market, not the Night Market)
- Admission: Free
10. The Café Apartment
Not too far from Bến Thành Market is The Café Apartment, 42 Nguyen Hue Street (walking street). This building is chock full of history, and was actually used to house American military officers during the war. It also features a killer view of Nguyen walking street below. Grab a bite here for dinner if you can from one of the many restaurants, but be prepared to be on your toes. We stopped at Sielty Café on the 4th floor of the building and got charged for…wait for it….napkins! Yes, y’all, napkins. And although it wasn’t a large amount (2,000 VND or about 10 cents per napkin), we would HIGHLY encourage you to check your dinner receipts carefully. Although we have grown accustom to receiving wet napkins all over Japan at both restaurants and convenience stores for free apparently nothing is complimentary in Ho Chi Minh, so if you use anything or if something is brought to your table without you asking expect to be charged. *Note that this was the only city out of the 8 that we have visited in Vietnam where we experienced “padding” of the bill (at least that we know of anyway!).
The kids were hoping for dessert after, so we continued exploring the building finding ourselves on the 5th floor at Saigon Ơi with a delicious rainbow cake! YUM! Filled already Dom and I ordered just a piece for the kids. The woman asked me non-chalantaly where we were going to be seated and I told her outside as we all wanted to enjoy the sites and sounds of the city. Her response, “Oh, you can’t sit there as you only ordered one thing.” WHAT? The balcony is half empty.
So, yes, our recommendation is go…it’s super fun! BUT, be mindful.
- Hours: 0800 – 2130
- Admission: Free to explore
11. Nguyen Hue Walking Street
After coming down from The Café Apartment stroll the walking street (running right in front of the The Café Apartment building) until you get to City Hall as (again) it’s great people watching and you may luck out with a festival to enjoy as well (we did!). City Hall is lit up at night and along with a grand illuminated statue of Ho Chi Minh they make for a spectacular anchor for the street.
- Hours: 24/7
- Admission: Free
12. Bến Thành Market (night market)
After dark, the inner portion of Bến Thành shuts down (this is the part located inside the Cho building), but outside it comes alive with lots of illuminated booths selling sweets, street food, and nondescript souvenirs. We were all still pretty full from dinner, but our family loves strolling through markets and taking them in. Grab a fresh sugar cane juice or a beer for less than $1 USD and enjoy!
- Hours: Most stalls close around 2400
- Admission: Free
13. Lights Out
Head back to the hotel for a shower and some relaxation. Our Eden Star room included a “free mini bar,” (again through booking.com), so that was a nice touch. Beds were comfortable and city view was nice. Overall we would give this hotel a solid rating for its service and amenities and found it to fit our needs. If there’s still time maybe even head back up to the pool?
Saigon Sky Deck
Perhaps if it was just Dom and me we might have taken the elevator up to the 51st floor to end our day with a city sunset and drinks, but we just couldn’t see the kids letting us sit and relax after a long (HOT) day exploring. Additionally, we had painted the picture that the deck was partially outside which it is not. Thus, we skipped.
- Hours: 0930 – 2130
- Admission (make sure to check klook.com for deals): 200,000 VND/Adult, 130,000 VND/Children 4-12, Free for Children 3 and below
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